“How we see you” – some reflections on how Africans perceive the US and China.

china-africa

It was an interesting twist and Africans were having their moment on Twitter. When the US Republican Nominee for President, Donald Trump, spoke of the possibility of the US Elections being ‘rigged’, many Africans could not resist commenting on social media and giving advice or making fun of the situation Americans found themselves in. “African Presidents meeting to consider the option of boots on the ground in the event of violence from Trump supporters #Nov8AfricanEdition” read one, while “Sudan and Malawi refuse to rule out sanctions if they are unsatisfied with transparency of election process. #Nov8AfricanEdition” read another. This unusual scenario, with Africans poking fun at Americans for something they (Africans) are often scolded on, was a glimpse into how Africans perceived the US 2016 election. The irony was not lost on observers that it was Africans who were holding up a mirror to the US demonstrating that some issues and circumstances are not unique to Africa and can also happen in the US.

Where China is concerned, there is a story I have heard more than once since I moved to Africa in 2011. I am not sure if it is true or is just one story that has been told over and over to bring home a point but it goes like this; an African woman (insert here the name of any sub-Saharan African country) has a baby with a Chinese man who is working in Africa. When the baby is six months, the child falls ill and dies. The baby’s grandmother is later heard saying to the mother, “What did you expect? Nothing made in China is good and lasts forever.” I can’t imagine a mother saying this to her grieving daughter but this story, which I have heard on a few occasions, highlights a perception that some Africans have about Chinese products and of the construction projects of the Chinese in Africa. “Chinese construction work can be slapdash and buildings erected by mainland firms have on occasion fallen apart. A hospital in Luanda, the capital of Angola, was opened with great fanfare but cracks appeared in the walls within a few months and it soon closed,” reads an article in The Economist in 2011.

This blog, DevelopLENS, aims to look broadly at perspectives on development, ICT4D and new media from the three locations where its authors are based – the US, Africa, and China. Having looked at other areas of development in Africa, this post is meant to look at how Africans perceive the US and China. It is in a way a reverse of my first post which addressed representations of Africans. As noted in previous blog posts, Africa is a big continent comprising 54 countries and I would not be so bold as to think I can capture the thoughts, opinions of Africans- and they are certainly not a monolithic group – but I will present some perspectives I have gathered from readings and research.

There is little analysis or scholarly work on the perceptions of Africans towards the United States and China (Inman, 2014) although more recently there have been some studies aimed at addressing this gap. While there have been essays and opinions expressed by Africans with social media supporting the sharing of these perceptions, analytical studies have been few and it is through journalistic articles, blogs and books on the Chinese and US influence in Africa that these perspectives are gathered. In 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll in nine African nations and found that citizens had positive views of both the US and China – with medians of 79% and 70% respectively.

 

Inman (2014) notes that it is difficult to generalise about African perceptions of China and the US because of “the complex, nuanced, and changing ways in which Africans perceive and engage with outsiders.”  Highlighting how some Africans may view the Chinese positively while others are less enthusiastic of the Chinese presence, the author gives the example of Tanzanians who are more inclined to purchase a drug if there are Chinese characters on the packaging while in Ghana, the government in 2013 expelled Chinese miners in 2013 as Ghanaians perceived the Chinese miners of taking Ghanaian jobs and contributing to the pollution of the environment.

Survey data from Inman’s study showed that more developed countries in Africa had a lower opinion of China and that citizens in countries that import more Chinese goods also had a lower opinion of China. On an individual level, citizens with more assets were more likely to favour China. One important finding to note is Muslims were less likely to hold positive attitudes toward China. Africans also, according to the survey, do not appear to associate China with increased elite corruption.

When analysing perceptions towards the US, citizens living in African societies that were democratic were more likely to have positive attitudes to the US. The report also stated that Africans who viewed the elites in their societies as corrupt were more likely to view the United States favourably, giving the possible reason as the perception of the US as fighting corruption of the elites in applying conditionalities on aid. On an individual level, having a job, owning assets, holding democratic values, and identifying with the incumbent in political office increased the likelihood that citizens viewed the United States favorably. Similar to China, African Muslims were less likely to have positive attitudes toward the United States. The reason given was the ongoing global antiterrorist operations, where many African Muslims have a negative views of treatment by the US of Muslims abroad.

The study concluded that it was unable to support the claim of some in the Western media that report on favourable perceptions of China and USA in Africa contributing to positive foreign relations for China and USA; noting that the ‘reality is complex’. The study also reported that results showed that the US was making ‘positive impact’ on the perceptions of Africans in anti-corruption and democratisation efforts and therefore presented opportunities for the US to influence African opinions for more positive relations.

A Washington Post article from 2013 reporting on a Pew Research Center survey commented on “the remarkably pro-Americanism of sub-Saharan Africa” and described it as an interesting phenomenon.  The report noted that scholars in the region have explained that a reason for this could be that Africans are aware of how well African Americans have done since the civil rights movement and Africans view it as a form of African pride that the US has a history that emanates from the African continent. Also in 2013, a survey in International Affairs found that young Africans from 14 countries studying in South African universities had an overall positive attitude towards America with roughly seven-in-ten viewing Americans in a positive light.

A 2014 survey entitled “Africans’ Perceptions of Chinese Business in Africa” found that there was an overall negative perception by Africans about Chinese investment on the continent. “Africans do see the benefit of Chinese investment, but they are concerned about the environmental and social responsibility of China, the quality of their products, their possible involvement in corruption and illegal activities, and their employment practices,” the study concluded. In 2013, Nigeria’s then Minister of Finance, Lamido Sanusi, said Africa must view China as a competitor and that Africa must recognise that China is in Africa for its own interests. “So China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism,” he wrote. It seems to be a message that China received as the Chinese Foreign Minister on a visit to Africa in January 2015 said, “we absolutely will not take the old path of Western colonists”.   In that same year, the South African government announced plans to introduce Mandarin in some South African public schools, causing a major debate in the country with the Teachers Union describing the move as a new form of colonisation. Tamimu Salehe, Assistant General of the Tanzanian Union of Industrial and Commercial workers has been quoted as saying, “This is the question we ask in Tanzania. Why do they [the Government of Tanzania] give such room to the Chinese? We are a trade union, and we ask this of our government. Why give them space to play in a sector where locals should be the main players?”

There are many varying views on the perceptions of the US and China in Africa and as Inman noted, there is need for more analysis and scholarly work to be conducted and certainly at the individual country level in Africa. Two things however remain clear; Africans are expressing their views and through social media, these views are being shared with wider audiences – audiences in the US and in China; indicating that Africans are not silent observers. Instead, as reported in an article in The Economist on China in Africa, but could also be applied to Africa and the USA, Africans are “asking whether China is making their lunch or eating it.”

 

References

The Economist (2011). “Trying to pull together.” http://www.economist.com/node/18586448

The Economist (2015). “One Among Many.” http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21639554-china-has-become-big-africa-now-backlash-one-among-many

Firsing S. (2013) “African youth perceptions of the United States of America.”  Young People In International Affairs. http://1n6yee3yf9w6rficx2tdzl9s.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/1521448410912.pdf

Fisher, M (2013). “Who loves and hates America: A revealing map of global opinion toward the U.S.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/01/11/who-loves-and-hates-america-a-revealing-map-of-global-opinion-toward-the-u-s/

French, H. (2014) “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.” Knopf. USA.

Geerts S., Xinwa N., and Rossouw D. (2014) “Africans’ Perceptions of Chinese Business in Africa. Geneva. Globethics.net/Hatfield http://www.globethics.net/documents/4289936/13403252/GE_Focus_18_web_1.pdf

Inman, K. (2014). “Determinants of African Perceptions toward Chinese and American Engagement in Africa.” Center for Strategic Intelligence Research. http://ni-u.edu/research/Research_Report_Feb2014_African_Pereption_Inman.pdf

Myre, G (2016). “On Twitter, Africans Mock U.S. Elections, Joking Of Sanctions” National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/10/18/498418532/on-twitter-africans-mock-u-s-elections-joking-of-sanctions

Sanusi, L (2013). ‘Africa must get real about Chinese ties.’ The Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/562692b0-898c-11e2-ad3f-00144feabdc0

Teagle, A., Chiu, C. (2016) “Why introducing Mandarin in SA schools is not a good idea.” The Daily Maverick http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-03-10-op-ed-why-introducing-mandarin-in-sa-schools-is-not-a-good-idea/#.WBYrK3n7XIU

 

One Comment:

  1. This is a very interesting article because we in the global north are so used to having opinions and views on the rest of the world but we never really consider weather or not the recipients of this know the picture we portray. With the spread of social media globally this is inevitable. This is why it’s great to see the #Nov8AfricanEdition spread. The global north deserves a dose of their own medicine. Why do we assume that our way is the right one? We all need to take a closer look at ourselves.

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